Commentary: On Uber for Health Care

By Ali Khan, M.D., Tasce Bongiovanni, M.D., and Ali Ansary

Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: We love Uber.

As physicians with roots in the Bay Area, we use Uber all the time. The service is convenient, (usually) swift and consistently pleasant. With a few taps of a smartphone, we know where and when we’ll be picked up — and we can see the Uber driver coming to get us in real time. When the vagaries of San Francisco public transit don’t accommodate our varying schedules, it’s Uber that’s the most reliable form of transportation. (It might be that we like having some immediate gratification.)

So when we caught wind of the news that Uber’s founding architect, Oscar Salazar, has taken on the challenge of applying the “Uber way” to health care delivery, there was quite a bit to immediately like. From our collective vantage point, Uber’s appeal is obvious. When you’re feeling sick, you want convenience and immediacy in your care — two things Uber has perfected.

And who wouldn’t be excited by the idea of keeping patients out of overcrowded emergency rooms and urgent care waiting rooms? The concept of returning those patients to their homes (where they can then be evaluated and receive basic care) seems so simple that it’s brilliant.

Even better, in an era where health care costs are on the minds of many, Uber’s financial structure offers the promise of true price transparency for consumers — a rarity in current American health care. Imagine a system in which, from day one, patients understand how much their care will cost them. That’s the kind of disruptive innovation for which there’s already considerable market demand (as evidenced by the other players in this space); its potential to effect a sea change in health care delivery is even greater.

As physicians deeply immersed in the health policy and innovation arenas, we naturally “get it.” So, then, are we cheering for Uber Health?

Hardly.

Lest you lump us in with Jessica Seinfeld, however, allow us to explain ourselves.

Our concern rests on the potential negative externalities that a disruption like Uber, previously validated in a rational market, can generate when introduced to an irrational one, like health care.

In American medicine these days, many of us are hard at work trying to bend the proverbial cost curve. Considerable research suggests that we can generate significant savings through early, aggressive management of medical problems in the primary care setting — before they lead to the emergency room visits, disease progression, inpatient hospitalizations and subsequent complications that cost billions.

The “Uber way” might tackle part of that challenge, through the avoidance of those expensive ER visits (and, by extension, potential hospitalizations). By encouraging one-off visits from physicians at home, however, that model ignores the longitudinal primary care component that enables the execution of that prevention strategy. In doing so, it fails to capture a critical aspect of the existing value proposition in health care delivery. Most people, after all, wont’ be calling Uber for an elevated cholesterol level or a screening colonoscopy.

For what it’s worth, other actors in the health innovation arena understand the necessity of that longitudinal component. The blossoming concierge medicine industry offers a primary care home with exclusivity. Meanwhile, health care startups such as Iora Health (where one of us works) and One Medical Group promise radically re-envisioned primary care clinics as a critical element of the next social transformation of American medicine. Still others, such as Sherpaa and the health insurance startup Oscar, coordinate services similar to the Uber home visits but within the context of insurance coverage, embedding those visits into a comprehensive model of integrated primary and secondary care.

Technological innovation, at face value, is an incredible tool for social change. Many of the nation’s hottest start-ups often make a moral (or “solutionist“) argument for their work. At times, the products they offer can appear more like innovation for innovation’s sake — technology that is created for no obvious social purpose. But we choose to consider an alternative argument.

We posit that technology has vast potential as a social good — potential that as of yet remains unrealized. The “Uber way,” if considered carefully with a robust medical “home” (be it the patient-centered medical home or otherwise) at its center, could produce positive externalities that impact the lives of millions. Without that core, however, the Uber model runs the risk of becoming yet another example of innovation forged in a vacuum, providing health care on demand — and ignoring the need to contextualize that care within the longitudinal narrative of one’s overall health. We thus offer a path to mitigate that risk for “Uber Health’s” future customers — and that’s a solution for which we’d be willing to wait.

And let’s not even get started on surge pricing during flu season.

Ali Khan, MD, MPP is an internist at Yale-New Haven Hospital and a clinician-innovator at Iora Health. He currently serves as the chair-elect of the American College of Physicians’ National Council of Resident/Fellow Members. Tasce Bongiovanni, MD, MPP is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar at Yale University and a surgical resident at the University of California, San Francisco. Ali Ansary is the founder of SeventyK.org, a TEDMED 2012 speaker and a senior medical student at Rocky Vista University.

Guests posts do not reflect the opinions of TEDMED.

Do our cells have their own IP address yet?

By Ali Ansary

In the future, implanted chips will have the ability to stop food absorption when caloric intake reaches 2200. Cells in our forearm will be able to monitor our glucose levels and adjust our insulin appropriately. These implantable cells or “chips” have their own IP address with their own circuitry that is connected to a network 24/7. Through this network, cells communicate with real-time super computers to synthesize the next step for an individual’s body. If Dr. Anthony Atala can utilize 3D printers to create a new kidney, then it is only a matter of time before we can incorporate the circuitry within an organ necessary to monitor its function wirelessly.

Ali Ansary at TEDMED 2012.

This was the future I was challenged to paint in my talk at TEDMED 2012 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. As TEDMED 2013 commences, I ask myself, where are we one year later?

A caveat: The following are simple overviews on novel technologies I had been tracking over the past year and does no justice to the many amazing leaps we have made in innovative science and medicine during this time.

Implantable Sensors

Thomas Goetz beautifully discusses in The Atlantic that diabetics, although “loath” it, have been self-monitoring for years. Goetz goes on to say that the “….distaste falls into three categories: self monitoring for diabetes is an unremitting and unforgiving labor; the tools themselves are awkward and sterile; and the combination of these creates a constant sense of anxiety and failure.”

However, what if we had an implantable sensor that simply monitors an individual’s glucose? In 2010, Dr. David Gough from the University of California, San Diego demonstrated that you could potentially monitor an individual’s glucose by wireless telemetry. A patient can be in San Francisco with his or her physician having access to the data in Los Angeles.

And what if the immune system renders the chip incapable of functioning? Dr. Melissa Grunlan at the University of Texas A&M has been working to develop a self cleaning mechanism that prevents implantable glucose sensors from being “shielded” by the body’s immune system.

Dr. Giovanni de Micheli and Dr. Sandro Carrara at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland have developed a 1.4 cm implantable device that can measure proteins and organic acids in real time. Imagine a signal being sent to your cell phone, and your doctor’s phone, indicating an increase in cardiac enzymes- potentially a heart attack. This device functions on a battery-less system that connects to a patch resting on the surface of the skin.

Natural anatomy acts as a barrier to implantable batteries. Yet, as Dr. Ada Poon and her team at Stanford University have developed a medical device that can be powered wirelessly using electromagnetic radio waves. Now, the tiny devices we envisioned can circulate into the depths of our vascular system without fear of losing power. Reminds me of “The Magic School Bus” episode when Ms. Frizzle takes her class on a field trip through the human body.

A personal favorite of mine:  At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Konstantina Stankovic has demonstrated the ability to use the natural electric potential from electrolytes in the inner ear to power devices that can monitor biological activity in people with auditory and balance issues.

Early detection is fundamental in many of these devices, especially for cancer patients who have aggressive diseases prone to metastasis. Take, for example patients with malignant melanoma, one of the deadliest cancers and one that has seen little progress in its treatment. Dr. Shuang Hou and his team at UCLA have demonstrated a proof of concept of a “nanovelcro” chip that can capture highly specific and isolated circulating tumor cells.

And what about regulating food intake and nutrient absorption? Intrapace has created Abiliti, an implantable gastric stimulator and food detection system that is implanted into the stomach. As soon as food is detected, it stimulates the stomach to create a sense of fullness. I can see eventually a system that can monitor an individual’s caloric input over, say, 24 hours. This would allow us to eat normally without overindulging.

Wearable Sensors

A quick mention on a hot topic. As popular discussions emphasize trends like the Nike+ FuelBand, one step closer to wearable sensors are what Dr. John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has developed: An electronic sensor that can be directly printed onto your skin using a rubber stamp and last for up to two weeks as highlighted in MIT’s Technology Review. The potential for this goes beyond saying.

The Fine Line

This is just a short list of exciting new innovations. Of course many people may be taken aback by such technologies, which is fine. The purpose of my talk was to create discussion while painting a potential future that may be upon us soon. It is important for all of us to be active in our own healthcare. If we aren’t, then someone else will be.

Knowledge about our glucose or hemoglobin and hematocrit in our time is just as important as knowing whether or not to fuel our cars with unleaded or diesel.  But we still need an expert mechanic’s help.  Let me explain. I do believe that growth in this field, like anything else in medicine in the 21st century, will need to be not only through adoption by the empowered and informed patient, but also via healthcare providers.

Old mechanics would drive a problematic car themselves to assess damage. Simple things such as hearing a funny sound or seeing the car pull to the left would give them enough information to diagnose the problem.  Today the engineering of a car is so sophisticated that sensors continuously monitoring the “health” of the engine alert the driver when something is wrong. That unwelcome signal – a picture of a wrench, perhaps, or a flat tire – notifies the driver and the mechanic what part has gone wrong, what’s wrong with it, and what needs to be done.

So the mechanic had to evolve the way he (or she) fixed a car. The physician today is much like that mechanic.  While the human body is far more sophisticated than even a brand new Mercedes Benz, newly trained physicians need to adjust how they care for their patients’ health.

Growth in this field, like anything else in medicine in the 21st century, will need to be not only through adoption by the e-patient, but also via tech-savvy healthcare providers.

Call for ideas: What should a 21st-century doctor look like?

In 1900, the leading causes of death in the U.S. were flu, tuberculosis and gastrointestinal infections. Today, they are heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases, with stroke and diabetes in the top ten – largely preventable conditions.*

The problem is, our healthcare system, devoted as it is to acute, curative care, still thinks it’s 1900, with disastrous results. As Ali Ansary, Sandeep “Sunny” Kishore and Jacob Scott, all TEDMED 2012 speakers, wrote in The Huffington Post,

“With increasingly tragic consequences, the reactionary medical paradigm has not provided the preventive care or chronic illness management that our culture needs. Healthcare spending currently consumes 17 percent of our GDP and without a radical shift in thinking, this number may grow even higher.”

Change begins with conversation. To that end, the three have launched a movement called Tomorrow’s Doctor, in which they call for ideas on how to reimagine medicine of the future, starting with med ed.  We must re-align priorities, they say, and take advantage of gains already made in technology and public health.

Above all:

“We need to stop the “imaginectomies” and help, collectively, step by step, to make creativity, imagination and compassion the 21st century standards of medical education.”

Read the full article here and visit www.tomorrowsdoctor.org to contribute ideas.

Sources:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; New England Journal of Medicine